October 25, 2010

Voters to get last word on elected mayor

Backers and opponents of the measure have a week left to sway those whose opinions actually count.

By Edward D. Murphy emurphy@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

PORTLAND - The Portland Charter Commission says it's time for Portland's mayor to do more than preside over ribbon-cuttings and wield the gavel at council meetings.

The panel has recommended that the city's mayor be elected by Portland residents, rather than the nine councilors selecting one of their colleagues to do the job; that the mayor should have more powers and work full-time at the post; should serve for four years rather than one; and should be elected by a complex ranked choice voting system that's in use only in a handful of communities nationwide.

Opponents either don't like the whole idea of an elected mayor; argue that a mayor shouldn't be paid a full-time salary for what they say is still primarily a ceremonial job; or don't like a voting system they say could be manipulated.

City voters will settle the debate on Nov. 2, Election Day, when they vote on the commission's recommendation.

Backers of the proposal have gathered a powerful group of supporters, including the Portland Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Business interests support the change because they argue that the city has lost opportunities at luring businesses or promising development proposals by bickering within the council. They say that having one person, selected by voters, as a city leader would provide more direction and accountability.

"Accountability has been lacking in the opportunities that have been passed up, by the way that services have been cut while taxes go up," said Jed Rathband, who has been hired to manage the campaign of groups supporting the changes proposed by the charter commission.

Rathband said ranked choice voting is a key component of that accountability because it ensures that the winning candidate will have a majority of the vote and go into office with a mandate.

Under ranked choice voting, voters pick a candidate as they do currently, but they are also asked for a second choice. After the votes are counted, if no candidate has a majority, officials go over the ballots cast for the last-place finisher and allocate the second choice votes to the candidates as the voters have indicated.

Once those second choice votes are added to the totals for the remaining candidates, if no one has gained a majority, the second choices on the ballots for the next-to-last-place finisher are allocated. The process continues until one candidate has more than 50 percent of the vote.

Rathband said the procedure is simply a mechanism to make sure that the winner gets a majority and "it eliminates any chance of a fringe candidate playing spoiler."

But opponents say the voting system is too complicated and also argue that there's no need for a popularly elected mayor.

The mayor's chief power, under the charter commission's proposal, would be the ability to veto a budget, but that action can be overridden by a super-majority of the council. The mayor can also appoint councilors to committees and develop agendas for council meetings.

Cheryl Leeman, a city councilor who leads the opponents, said some of those against the proposal actually support an elected mayor, but believe the position as conceived by the charter commission is too weak. Others oppose the elected mayor idea in itself, she said, the cost of the position or the ranked choice voting method.

"We're opposed to this particular recommendation," she said.

Some of the opposition is rooted around cost -- the mayor would be paid about $66,000 in salary, plus benefits, she said. With support staff costs, travel and other allowances, Leeman said, the annual cost could run $150,000 a year.

"In an economy where you have constraints on your budget, why would you spend your money on a political position, rather than putting two more firefighters out there or two more police officers out there?" she asked.

Cost was the main reason cited by the Portland firefighters union, which is opposiing to the elected mayor position.

But Rathband said any cost would be covered by shifting administration allocations in the budget and, in any case, the expenses would be exceeded by having a city government that runs more smoothly and efficiently under a leader picked with the public's backing.

 

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@pressherald.com

 

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